Agile leadership in times of crisis - What does it take to lead an Independent school through a pandemic? - Independent Schools Victoria

Agile leadership in times of crisis - What does it take to lead an Independent school through a pandemic? - Independent Schools Victoria
Agile leadership in times of crisis
What does it take to lead an Independent school through a pandemic?
Agile leadership in times of crisis - What does it take to lead an Independent school through a pandemic? - Independent Schools Victoria

It’s an understatement to say that being a school principal is challenging, even at the best of times.

As leaders of dynamic human organisations, large and small, principals deal with constant and
sometimes conflicting demands. Their focus always is on the education and wellbeing of their
students. At the same time, they have to meet the needs of staff and respond to the reasonable
(and sometimes unreasonable) expectations of parents. And then there are the complex
operational challenges – financial, administrative and legal - of ensuring the immediate and long-
term sustainability of their school.

All of these challenges are compounded in a crisis. COVID-19 is a crisis like no other and it has
placed an extraordinary burden on principals.

It has required them to adapt quickly to the imposition of remote learning as a result of school
lockdowns, a technological and a human challenge for all involved – students, teachers and parents.

They have had to adapt to sudden shifts in official health advice and government directives, a task
made more difficult when advice and directives are complex and sometimes conflict. They have
to respond and provide reassurance to their communities that often demand what COVID denies –
certainty and consistency. They have to lead, displaying outward confidence when they themselves
are tired, anxious and unsure.

This research report confirms the crucial importance of leadership in a crisis, revealing how
Independent school principals confronted the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19. It shows how
they adapted and placed a priority on people and relationships, even as they dealt with their own
stress, anxiety and fatigue.

It suggests lessons for the future, whenever we finally emerge for the current upheaval. For
now, the findings of this report are a tribute to the resilience of the principals who shared their
experiences with our researchers.

Michelle Green
Chief Executive
Independent Schools Victoria
Agile leadership in times of crisis - What does it take to lead an Independent school through a pandemic? - Independent Schools Victoria
Executive summary		             								 4

 Key recommendations							 		                                     6

 Report findings at a glance		         							                     7

Introduction											                                            8

 Education and change: ‘Then’ and ‘now’						                 		   9

 The impact of COVID-19 on education   							                     10

Research background										13

Results and discussion 										                                  19

 Leading school communities through crisis: an overview				        20

 Leadership styles throughout the pandemic							25

 Lockdown One: the spread of COVID-19 						                       27

 Lockdown Two: confronting emerging tensions						                 29

 Envisioning a COVID-normal future 								36

Conclusion				                  							                            40

References 												45

Appendix 												48
Agile leadership in times of crisis - What does it take to lead an Independent school through a pandemic? - Independent Schools Victoria
Leading a school is demanding         To explore how Independent school principals
                                      confronted the challenges of leading through the
at the best of times, let alone       COVID-19 pandemic, Independent Schools Victoria
through a pandemic. In 2020,          conducted a joint empirical qualitative research
                                      study with Dr. Venesser Fernandes at the Faculty of
nearly four million students          Education, Monash University. The study is based
enrolled in kindergarten to Year      on 42 in-depth interviews with a sample of Victorian
                                      Independent school principals conducted between
12 in Australia experienced some      October and December 2020.
interruption to their learning
due to COVID-19. In particular,       We found that:
                                      •   Principals adapted their priorities and leadership
Victorian students experienced            approaches throughout the pandemic to navigate
two strict lockdowns with                 internal and external influences. Leadership styles
significant periods spent learning        generally shifted from an operational leadership
                                          approach to a more relational approach during the
from home. During such crises,            second lockdown.
the role of school principal          •   We found clear differences in the aspects of school
becomes an unenviable and                 leadership that principals prioritised, depending on
                                          their length of time in the role. Mid and experienced
difficult proposition. The diverse        principals (over four years) were more likely to
challenges and competing needs            discuss school sustainability, teaching pedagogy
that principals must juggle can           and overall wellbeing compared to new principals.
                                          New principals (3 years or less) were more likely
also take a toll on their wellbeing       than mid to experienced principals to discuss
and have a detrimental impact             operational and financial challenges and the value
                                          of community support and partnerships.
across school communities.
                                      •   The dominant leadership style adopted by
                                          principals was relational leadership. Eighty-three
                                          per cent of principals showed a strong inclination
                                          to become more people-centred by placing greater
                                          emphasis on building organic relationships, rather
                                          than focusing on just outcomes or solutions.

                                      •   Most principals found that people leadership was
                                          key in navigating the crisis successfully.

                                                                Agile leadership in times of crisis | 4
Agile leadership in times of crisis - What does it take to lead an Independent school through a pandemic? - Independent Schools Victoria
•   Seventy-six per cent of principals suggested there     •   Principals learned that it is important to embrace
    is an opportunity to review aspects of current             uncertainty, be upfront and able to show
    school models and pedagogical approaches.                  vulnerability. By doing this, they were able to
    Several principals initiated plans to refine their         encourage a growth mindset and a safe space for
    current curriculum with an increased focus on              experimentation and disruptive innovation for their
    digital technologies and developing new learning           school community.
                                                           •   Some principals considered incorporating a hybrid
•   Sixty-six per cent of principals reported                  learning approach to leverage the benefits
    experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety and            observed from remote learning.
    fatigue during the pandemic. However, some were
                                                           •   To survive and thrive during such uncertain, complex
    also able to see the silver lining and perceived the
                                                               and ambiguous times, principals performed a
    experience as an opportunity for the school to
                                                               delicate balancing act of making decisions without
    grow. They felt more competent and confident as
                                                               fully knowing the consequences, while often dealing
    they rose to the challenges thrown at them.
                                                               with financial pressures and questions about school
•   Many principals may not have had adequate                  sustainability.
    support or resources to cope with the mounting
    stress, caused by a significant workload and often     They also had to manage people, relationships and
    exacerbated by professional isolation.                 communication with empathy and compassion. This
                                                           invariably enabled new practices – grounded in adaptive
•   Eighty-eight per cent of principals reported that it
                                                           and agile management and leadership principles – that
    was necessary to shift their focus to mental health
                                                           encouraged experimentation and innovation.
    and wellbeing throughout the pandemic.

•   Principals increasingly used research, data and        While the challenges and opportunities stemming
    technology to make evidence-based decisions            from the COVID-19 crisis varied from school to school,
    during the crisis. Those who used data were keen       it was clear that principals were fighting apart, rather
    to continue doing so due to the positive impact        than alone. Together, they demonstrated newfound
    observed.                                              optimism through courage, hope and resilience.
                                                           Their stories pave the way not only for school leaders,
•   Some principals have created emergency                 but educators, parents, students, researchers,
    contingency plans to ensure their school remains       policymakers and other relevant stakeholders to
    financially sustainable.                               reimagine what quality education could look like in
•   For many principals, the perception of their role      COVID-normal times and beyond.
    shifted from being a leader of a school to a leader
    of their community.

                                                                                     Agile leadership in times of crisis | 5
Agile leadership in times of crisis - What does it take to lead an Independent school through a pandemic? - Independent Schools Victoria
Key recommendations

Based on our research findings, principals would be     •   Conducting regular self-reflection to identify and
encouraged to consider:                                     address any physical, mental and emotional
•   Embracing and maintaining flexibility to modify         exhaustion to prevent burnout and champion
    curricula and teaching delivery as required.            self-care and self-reflection.

•   Prioritising mental health and wellbeing concerns   •   Continuing to use research, data and technology
    on an institutional level, recognising that these       to act on insights and be more agile in strategic
    issues have wider implications and require a            decision making.
    systemic response.                                  •   Embracing uncertainty and showing vulnerability
•   Developing emergency contingency plans to               to gain trust and increase collaboration.
    ensure their school remains financially             •   Incorporating a blended or hybrid learning
    sustainable, now and in the long-term.                  approach to leverage the benefits observed from
•   Building relationships within and beyond their          remote learning.
    school communities and strengthening networks
    to increase collaboration.

                                                                                 Agile leadership in times of crisis | 6
Agile leadership in times of crisis - What does it take to lead an Independent school through a pandemic? - Independent Schools Victoria
Report findings
   at a glance                             in-depth interviews
                                           with Victorian
                                           Independent school

                                 reported a shift in             showed a strong
       The dominant              focus to mental                 inclination to
 leadership style adopted        health and                      become more
     by principals was           wellbeing.                      people-centred
   relational leadership.                                        during the

Mid and experienced            New principals
     principals               (3 years or less)
(more than 4 years)
                            more likely to discuss           experienced high
more likely to discuss         operational and               levels of stress,
school sustainability,      financial challenges             anxiety
 teaching pedagogy             and the value of              and fatigue
and overall wellbeing.      community support                during the
                              and partnerships.              pandemic.

                                                         Principals increasingly
                                                           used research, data
                                                        and technology to make
                                                       evidence-based decisions.

suggested there is an
opportunity to review
aspects of current school
models and pedagogical
Agile leadership in times of crisis - What does it take to lead an Independent school through a pandemic? - Independent Schools Victoria
Education and change: ‘Then’ and ‘now’

Technological development has significantly            Nevertheless, schools are in a unique and important
changed the way in which people work and               position to engage and equip students with relevant
communicate, particularly since the late 1980s         skills and competencies to navigate the future in this
and early 1990s. However, it’s not until recently      volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.
that the idea of digital nomadism in corporate         Many schools embrace a student-centred approach
and professional settings has became somewhat          to support and encourage students to learn in a
mainstream (Aroles, Granter & de Vaujany, 2020).       sustainable, authentic, active and purposeful way.
Globally, there is a movement for businesses,          In turn, this enables them to develop agency and
communities and individuals to become more             ownership in learning; cognitive, metacognitive,
flexible and autonomous. We are also seeing workers    interpersonal and emotional skills; and practical
progressively detached from a physical location,       capacities to become agents of change (Tanner, 2012).
enabling them to perform organisational functions
and collaborate anywhere, anytime (Ideland, 2021).     To encourage students to think as global citizens,
                                                       schools are increasingly paying attention to local
The education sector is no exception. We have seen     educational policy changes as well as international
a steady increase in virtual teaching and learning     trends in the knowledge economy. For example,
in recent years – from formally structured open        some schools are moving away from an examination-
university programs to Massive Open Online Courses     based curriculum to project-based learning to help
(MOOCs) that are free for anyone to enrol. Some        students to think critically and deeply about real-
examples include courses offered by Khan Academy,      world problems (Bughin et al., 2019; IIori & Ajagunna,
Coursera and Udacity; socially networked learning      2020). These significant changes suggest that
via tools like wikis, weblogs, podcasts and YouTube;   schools may look to provide opportunities to empower
as well as social networking sites such as Facebook    educators through distributed leadership to transform
(Lourie, 2020; Siemens & Conole, 2011). Some of the    education. As learning practices evolve, teachers
world’s top companies including Google, Microsoft,     will need more targeted professional learning that
Amazon and Zoom have also tapped into educational      facilitates innovative pedagogies and evidence-
services (Williamson, Eynon & Potter, 2020).           based data to make decisions involving teaching and
                                                       assessment (Barnes et al., 2018; Mahat et al., 2018).

                                                                                Agile leadership in times of crisis | 9
The impact of COVID-19 on education

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need for               In a similar vein, Gardner-McTaggart (2020) highlights
schools to embrace remote learning to sustain quality        the need for educational management, administration
education. More than 1.5 billion enrolled students of all    and leadership to reposition from its current form
ages – approximately 90 per cent of the global student       based on dominated knowledge. For instance, the
population – have been affected by the pandemic              pandemic prompted schools to be more vigilant about
(UNESCO, 2020a; 2020b; UNICEF, 2020, cited by                practices like hygiene at an organisational level. By
Bozkurt et al. 2020, p. 2). Although COVID-19 has            dealing with such present-future needs, schools are
been dubbed a ‘once-in-a-century pandemic’ (Gates,           encouraged to think and work collectively to reinforce
2020), which presents unique complexities and                sustainable and common-sense goals.
challenges for teaching and learning, it will certainly
not be the last crisis we face in our time. Therefore,       This underpins a power shift some scholars have
schools will increasingly require agile leaders who          pointed out that concerns educational leadership at
are able ‘to adapt to changing demands, and seek             an institutional level: emphasising of communality
unique solutions in partnership with colleagues and          rather than individuality (Sergiovanni, 2005). Despite
peers’ (Breakspear et al., 2017, p. v), as they become       various leadership styles, personal traits and
accustomed to a ‘new COVID-normal’.                          competencies – as well as philosophies and values
                                                             – being commonly used as precursors to successful
While adaptability, flexibility and agility are often        leadership in education, Sergiovanni (2005) argues
used synonymously to describe how people respond             that ‘the heartbeat of leadership is a relationship, not
to change and uncertainty, some scholars argue that          a person or process’ (p. 53). It is therefore important
they are different concepts. For example, Conboy             to consider and contextualise relevant relational,
(2009) points out that adaptability is predominately         environmental and situational factors to understand
reactive. In other words, when ‘the world “outside”          how they can influence leadership practices in
of education changes, so must the world “inside” of          education. For example, in Australia alone, nearly four
education, with much of the responsibility for leading       million kindergarten to Year 12 students are enrolled
the changes resting with school leaders (Timperley et        in schools (ABS, 2019). While every principal, teacher
al., 2020, p. 1, cited by Elliott & Hollingsworth, 2020).’   and student experienced some level of interruption
                                                             in 2020, impacts emerging from the pandemic varied
Agility, on the other hand, signifies a two-way process,     among schools in different states.
where one can also influence and implement radical
change (Conboy, 2009). While agility in education is
not new, it is especially relevant in times of crisis.
This is because school leaders are prompted to                             “The heartbeat
scramble for resources and act quickly without fully                       of leadership is a
knowing the consequences of their decisions. As
education systems around the globe are continually
                                                                           relationship, not a
forced to engage in emergency remote education, we                         person or process.”
are witnessing a shift from chalk-and-talk teacher-
centred learning to student-focused and collaborative                                 Sergiovanni (2005)
processes (Bozkurt et al., 2020).

                                                                                      Agile leadership in times of crisis | 10
What is relational leadership?

The dominant leadership style adopted by principals throughout the pandemic was relational leadership.
The diagram below shows the elements of this leadership model.

                                                                       Understanding key issues
                                                                         and being able to think
                                                                       strategically about how to
                                        Change                                                                                Complexity
                                                                                                                          Having the skills to
                                Understanding and
                                                                                                                           survive and thrive
                                working effectively
                                                                                                                          in situations of low
                                with the dynamics
                                                                                 Connected                                 certainty and low
                                    of change
                                                                      The ability to understand
                                                                     actors in the wider political
                                                                    landscape and to engage and
                                                                     build effective relationships
                                                                      with new kinds of internal
                                                                        and external partners

Adapted from: Bond, D., Dent, F., Gitsham, M., & Culpin, V. (2010). A perspective on leadership: Towards a relational leadership framework. The Ashridge Journal, 4, p.2.

                                                                                                                                         Agile leadership in times of crisis | 11
The situation that Victorian principals faced was           Consequently, operational guidelines across Victorian
unique as the lockdown restrictions in Victoria             Independent schools were uncertain and many
were more strict and prolonged than other states in         constraints ebbed and flowed during the crisis. These
Australia. The first lockdown lasted from March-May         guidelines were often unclear, contradictory and came
and the second lockdown from July-October 2020. In          from multiple government departments within both
total, Victorians were in hard lockdown for 176 days        the Federal and State Governments, which placed
in 2020, compared to 56 days of less stringent rules        further strain on school principals. For example,
for non-Victorians. In addition to the night curfew         in April 2020, Victorian Independent schools were
(8pm to 5am) imposed across the metropolitan                required to decide whether to re-open their school
area, Melburnians were required to stay home                to receive an early funding payment from the Federal
unless shopping for essential goods and services;           Government or to continue with remote learning as
undertaking work or study that could not be done from       advised by the Victorian Chief Health Officer (ABC,
home; seeking or giving care; or exercising                 2020). This was a difficult choice for many principals
 (for a maximum of one hour) within a 5km radius            to make.
(Westrupp et al., 2021).
                                                            There is some research providing insights on how
While restrictions were slightly less severe for regional   COVID-19 may have impacted education in Australia
areas, Victorian students in general spent significant      in general (e.g., see Drane, Vernon & O’Shea, 2020;
time learning from home compared to other states in         Morris et al., 2020; Scull et al., 2020). In June 2021,
Australia.                                                  ISV released a report on how school communities
                                                            adjusted to remote learning during COVID-19 based
                                                            on its LEAD School Effectiveness Surveys. Other
                                                            than this, studies on the experience of Independent
                                                            schools in Victoria are scant. While existing studies
                                                            capture the experiences of teachers and students,
                                                            narratives from school leaders remain unexplored.
                                                            This study was conducted to address these gaps,
                                                            primarily to understand the experience of principals in
                                                            Victorian Independent schools during the crisis.

                                                                                    Agile leadership in times of crisis | 12

The role of a principal is pivotal in                   Principalship is an emergent profession. As noted
                                                        by one principal during the interview: ‘it is like
maintaining education continuity                        driving a car while still building it!’ Nevertheless,
and growth, especially in a time                        the significant challenges facing school leaders

of crisis. As Gouëdard et. al.                          throughout the COVID-19 crisis provided an
                                                        opportunity to investigate how principals at Victorian
(2020) suggests, ‘principals are                        Independent schools tackled these issues and what
key, as they are at the heart of                        we can learn from their experience.

the school-level strategies to                          In collaboration with Dr. Venesser Fernandes from
respond to emergencies’ (p. 13).                        the Faculty of Education at Monash University, this
                                                        research aims to explore the experiences of principals
Against this backdrop, Independent Schools              of Victorian Independent schools who led their school
Victoria (ISV) explored the role of school leadership   through the pandemic. Specifically, this study aims to:
during the pandemic, how principals felt, what they     •   Investigate how principals experienced the
learned and the challenges they encountered. The            COVID-19 lockdowns by expanding on the
initial interviews, undertaken by ISV staff during          conversations and insights gained in the initial
the first Victorian COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020,        interview,
provided a landscape view of Independent schools
and the challenges they were facing in relation to      •   Improve understanding of how principals
education, finances, health and wellbeing.                  strategically led their school during the
                                                            pandemic to identify key elements of an agile
Our initial research found that principals took the         leadership and school,
opportunity to review and redesign current practices
                                                        •   Explore principals’ reflections of how this
during the pandemic. Some of the opportunities
                                                            experience might change their school and the
identified were collaboration and communication
                                                            post-pandemic educational agenda in schools.
(among staff, parents and other schools), changes
in the traditional timetable, the use of technology,
and the upskilling and reskilling of teachers to stay
relevant in the new means of curriculum delivery.

                                                                                 Agile leadership in times of crisis | 14
Research questions

The overarching research question that guided              The second, and core component, was qualitative
this study has been: ‘What was the experience of           research among principals in Independent schools. The
principals in Independent schools during the COVID-19      qualitative approach allowed for a detailed and flexible
crisis?’. This was explored using the following sub-       examination of people’s perceptions and decision
research questions:                                        making. As the objectives were explorative in nature,
•   How did principals describe the experience             in-depth interviews were chosen as a medium to receive
    leading their school in both lockdowns?                elaborative feedback and deeper understanding of
                                                           opinions. The richness of this data could not be obtained
•   What was the impact of this experience in their
                                                           through a quantitative design.
    leadership and decision making?

•   Which elements and practices helped principals         The target audience for this study were principals
    in enabling an agile and adaptive school?              of Independent schools in Victoria, specifically,
•   How did principals describe their school and           those already interviewed in the initial research
    education in post-pandemic times?                      during the first lockdown in early 2020. Interviewers
                                                           in the initial research were mainly responsible for

    Research design
                                                           conducting interviews in this study. Interviewers
                                                           used a semi-structured discussion guide to conduct

    and methodology                                        the interviews. This enabled a less rigid and
                                                           conversational interview which allowed interviewers
                                                           to probe various scenarios.
We conducted two research components for the
current study. The first component, project planning       All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed
and establishment, was designed to develop a deeper        for subsequent analysis. In addition, an analysis
understanding of the initial research conducted during     framework was used as a guide for interviewers to
April–May in 2020 and to review existing material          note their impressions of the key themes, patterns,
relevant to this study. To achieve this, informal          quotes and points of interest during the discussion.
interviews were conducted with interviewers involved       The process of analysis began the moment the
in the initial research and relevant ISV staff who have    discussion ended. This initial analysis approach
contact with principals and/or expertise in school         ensured that qualitative data was interrogated in a
leadership. Additionally, we conducted a literature scan   thorough yet timely manner.
of current research to ground the study. This ensured
that collective experience and data was used to inform
the development of the discussion guide, interview
questions and supplementary analysis.

                                                                                     Agile leadership in times of crisis | 15
Participant demographic

         Using a sample of 90 principals interviewed during the first lockdown, which was broadly representative
         of all Victorian Independent schools, a total of 42 principals participated in this research. The interviews
         took place in November–December 2020, averaging 45 minutes in length. The following diagrams provide a
         breakdown of principals’ school demographic and experience.

                                                                     School location

                                                                         Metro. n=33

                                                                         Regional. n=9

School type                                                          Years of experience as principal

 Combined. n=28                                                          New (3 years or less). n=14                 34%             32%
 Primary. n=3                                        5%                  Mid experience (4-7 years). n=14

 Secondary. n=9                                                          Experienced (8 years or more). n=13

 Special. n=2

                                                                     *One participant interviewed was an Assistant Principal
Analysis approach

The data investigation involved thematic analysis        In this study, the power of storytelling was used
to identify emerging themes. We implemented              to unpack principals’ experience, challenges and
the following coding approaches when assessing           leadership during the crisis. We looked at the three
the notes within interviewer’s analysis framework,       dimensions of narrative inquiry (temporal, sociality
recordings and transcripts:                              and place dimensions) to understand principals’
•   Descriptive coding: first cycle method of coding     experience. The narrative analysis framework shown
    that involved reading through qualitative data,      in Figure 1 (p.18) provided a roadmap to develop
    and coding passages according to topic               semi-structured interview questions that were
                                                         central and relevant to our research.
•   In-vivo coding: refers to a word or short phrase
    from the actual language found in the qualitative    The narrative inquiry approach allowed us to explore
    data record, using participants' own words, and      how a principal’s experience is seen, shaped and
    weaving their language into the descriptive codes.   reported. It enabled us to include narrative elements,
                                                         develop plots based on chronological patterns
Multiple iterations of coding were carried out
                                                         and divide plots based on internal and external
using a narrative inquiry framework, which is the
                                                         circumstances and challenges.
process of gathering information for the purpose of
research through storytelling. As Clandinin (2006)
points out, ‘arguments for the development and use
of narrative inquiry are inspired by a view of human
experience in which humans, individually and
socially, lead storied lives.’

                                                                                 Agile leadership in times of crisis | 17
Figure 1: Narrative analysis framework

                                                         Lived experience

                                        (Every experience has a past, present and future and is
                                   simultaneously personal and social), influenced by exernal context

                 (interaction)                                                                   Place
                                                                                        (contextualised realities)
                Personal conditions
    (e.g. "feelings, hopes, desires, aesthetic                                            Specific concrete, physical and
       reactions and moral dispositions")                                              topological boundaries of place where
                                                                                         the inquiry and events take place.
                  Social conditions
(e.g. "cultural, social, institutional and linguistic                                     Internal (e.g. organisational) and
       narratives", researcher (interviewer)                                              external contexts (e.g. State and
           and participant relationship,                                                   Federal influence, unforeseen
              ISV's role, collaboration                                                         circumstances etc.)
               between schools etc.)

                                                        (continuity in time)

               Past                                            Present                                        Future
           (reflection)                                      (experience)                           (outlook and expectations)

          March-May 2020                                    July-October 2020

           Start of                                   During the pandemic                                  Past pandemic
        the pandemic                                  and the new "normal"                                (Recovery phase)
(First lockdown, first wave)                     (Second lockdown, second wave)

(Source: Image adapted from Clandinin, 2006)

                                                                                                 Agile leadership in times of crisis | 18
Results and
Leading school communities through crisis:
  an overview

Principals’ challenges and priorities started with an initial ‘COVID crisis’ period beginning in March 2020. This
shifted to a period of ‘COVID normal’ that all schools reached sometime between the end of the second lockdown
in October and the return to school for all students around November/December. Figure 2 below portrays the
number of mentions by theme during lockdown one, lockdown two and COVID-normal. The gradient reflects the
distribution of data, with a red shade representing a higher number of mentions across interviews.

Figure 2: Heatmap of key themes by time stages

                                                               Lockdown 1      Lockdown 2              COVID-normal
                                                             (Mar-May 2020)   (Jul-Oct 2020)        (Oct 2020-Feb 2021)

                           Teaching pedagogy


                         School sustainability

        Operational and financial challenges

  People management and communication



                      Resources and support

                           Principal wellbeing

                            Staff development

                              Remote learning

                               School strategy


                                School culture

                         Education outcomes

 (Source: Coded main themes by time stages, n=42)
 Note: Red and darker shades represent higher number of mentions.

                                                                                               Agile leadership in times of crisis | 20
In summary, during lockdown one, principals               Figure 3 shows that new principals (3 years or less)
prioritised operational and financial challenges and      were more likely than mid to experienced principals
setting up remote learning. The priority then shifted     to discuss operational and financial challenges.
towards wellbeing, using evidence-based data and          They discussed the value of community support and
focusing on community during lockdown two. Towards        partnerships and were keen to revisit their school
the end of 2020, many principals aspired to resume        strategy once restrictions were lifted. They were also
strategic planning once the school was back on-           more likely to highlight their own mental health and
site. Most schools were able to conduct reflective        wellbeing than those who had more experience.
considerations of what worked well and what did not
during remote learning, and to leverage the benefits      Principals early in their career were not only faced
that emerged.                                             with operational and strategic issues, but the added
                                                          pressure of building relationships and conceptualising
For example, one of the key considerations was to         their role and duties as a ‘principal’. On the other
explore how a hybrid learning approach can further        hand, principals with more experience who already
improve student learning and experience. In summary,      had established relationships were able to shift their
school responses to the pandemic have been                attention to creative and innovative endeavours to
extraordinary as they shifted from ‘COVID-crisis’ to      improve teaching and learning. For example, mid and
‘COVID-normal’.                                           experienced principals (over 4 years) were more likely
                                                          to discuss school sustainability, teaching pedagogy
Additionally, principals’ focus differed by their years   and overall wellbeing compared to new principals.
of experience. As depicted in Figure 3 (p.22), we
found clear differences in what principals prioritised
depending on their length of time in the role.

                                                                                   Agile leadership in times of crisis | 21
Figure 3: Heatmap of themes by principal’s experience

                                                                         New           Mid experience             Experienced
                                                                   (3 years or less)     (4-7 years)            (8 years or more)

                              Teaching pedagogy


                             School sustainability

           Operational and financial challenges

     People management and communication



                          Resources and support

                               Principal wellbeing

                               Staff development

                                  Remote learning

                                   School strategy


                                    School culture

                             Education outcomes

(Source: Coded main themes by principal’s years of experience, n=42)
Note: Red and darker shades represent higher number of mentions.

                                                                                                        Agile leadership in times of crisis | 22
The findings from our research also suggest that                              As demonstrated in Figure 4, principals’ leadership
principals adapted their priorities and leadership                            styles generally shifted from an operational
approaches throughout the pandemic to navigate                                leadership approach to a more relational approach
internal and external influences. This can be seen in                         during the second lockdown. As the crisis wore on,
Figure 4, where most principals adopted a transactional                       principals reported becoming more empathetic as
leadership approach as schools quickly moved into a                           they were mindful that the pandemic has taken a
remote learning model during the start of the COVID                           toll on their staff and students’ mental health and
crisis. Principals also generally focused on contingency                      wellbeing. As they worked through the crisis, most
planning during the first lockdown to mitigate potential                      principals adopted a leadership approach that can be
risks. During that time, principals reported being highly                     variously described as values-based, collaborative,
exhausted and anxious, but determined to portray                              transparent and innovative.
calmness and lead from the front.

Figure 4: Heatmap of leadership approaches by time stages

                                                               Lockdown 1           Lockdown 2                  COVID-normal
                                                           (March-May 2020)      (July-October 2020)    (October 2020-February 2021)

         Building resilience and innovation

   Community and stakeholder leadership

                 Compassionate leadership

                        Contigency planning

                      Distributed leadership

                       Reflective leadership

                       Relational leadership

                          Servant leadership

             Support system and networks

               Teamwork and collaboration

                   Transactional leadership


                        Visionary leadership

(Source: Coded main themes by time stages, n=42)
Note: Red and darker shades represent higher number of mentions.

                                                                                                       Agile leadership in times of crisis | 23
“Principals’ leadership styles generally shifted from an operational
          leadership approach to a more relational approach during the
          second lockdown. As the crisis wore on, principals reported
          becoming more empathetic as they were mindful that the
          pandemic has taken a toll on their staff and students’ mental
          health and wellbeing.”

When asked what leadership approach they would            Principals felt they had an accountability in the wider
prioritise in a COVID normal environment, most noted      community to ensure students receive a quality
that ‘people leadership’ is key. While many principals    education and develop a civic responsibility despite the
already acknowledged this point, the effect of the        pandemic. For example, one principal mentioned that
pandemic heightened this reality in schools and           a key element of leading through a crisis was having
refocused many principals on the importance of            a strong community bond, which would ultimately
people leadership. They were keen to maintain the         support a school to continue to grow.
communication structures and strong bonds they
had strengthened among their staff and stakeholders       Other principals noted that having to adapt to changing
during the pandemic. They also intend to actively         conditions during the pandemic also influenced their
incorporate stakeholders’ voices in their school’s        perception and leadership practices. For example,
strategic decision making.                                the majority reported growing more confident in
                                                          leading their school communities. At the same time,
For many principals, the perception of their role         their expectations of themselves became arguably
shifted from being a leader of a school to a leader of    more realistic and reasonable upon recognising their
their community.                                          individual strengths and constraints. As a result, some
                                                          principals experienced a high level of personal growth,
" We certainly pushed a few things to the sidelines and   reporting that they became more empathetic, more
just focused as much as we could on teaching and          conscious of their leadership style and more accepting
learning, and building connections with the community."   of things outside of their control.

Most principals increased their focus on                    "…we just haven't got where I'd hoped we might be
understanding community needs and involving                 with that, but that's fine."
them in the actual planning process. Principals
also recognised the importance of building and              "…it’s been an insane year, but also, in terms of
maintaining strong relationships within the school          personal growth and professional growth, the
community and beyond. Some schools continued to             most valuable."
conduct cultural festivals in COVID-safe environments
to further establish the school’s presence in the
community, maintain tradition and provide a social
and emotional uplift for students and staff.

                                                                                   Agile leadership in times of crisis | 24
Leadership styles throughout the pandemic

Given that leadership is a fluid construct, principals          "I think my leadership was evolving anyway, but this
had to adopt different leadership styles throughout             has probably accelerated a few things. I’ve tried to
the pandemic. While every principal’s experience was            have a more humanistic approach to my leadership in
unique, several distinctive styles were evident.                the last few years and that certainly accelerated when
                                                                I came here."
Figure 6 below shows the percentage of principals
who identified with each leadership style during the            As a result, principals were not only able to build
pandemic.                                                       stronger connections with staff, students and
                                                                parents, but also with their professional networks and
The dominant style adopted by principals was                    local communities. Put simply, when leading through
relational leadership. This style of leading through            a crisis, we found that relational leadership trumps
a crisis stood out, with 83 per cent of principals              transactional leadership.
becoming more people-centred and placing greater
emphasis on building organic relationships, rather
than focusing on just outcomes or solutions.

Figure 6: Leadership styles identified in the current study

% of principals who adopted each leadership style

     Relational leadership                                                                           83%

 Values-based leadership                                                        64%

Compassionate leadership                                                        64%

     Visionary leadership                                 26%

   Distributive leadership                          19%

     Reflective leadership                    17%

       Servant leadership           7%

 Transactional leadership      5%

                                                                                        Agile leadership in times of crisis | 25
In general, principals also showed increased empathy        In this light, principals assumed a great responsibility
and understanding throughout their experience               to lead and were consciously aware of their ‘duty
leading through the COVID-19 crisis. This type of           of care’ when making decisions. Often, they are
compassionate leadership that was evident in some,          influenced by the school's philosophy, ethos and
contrasted with others who adopted a more servant           traditions when making decisions about the values
leadership style, noting that they had a greater            underpinning their leadership.
capacity to see things from others' perspectives. They
were also more willing to listen and empathise, or just     Our study also found that some principals are driven
‘be there’ to serve those in need.                          by a firm vision, demonstrating visionary leadership.
                                                            As one principal described her state of action being
  "And as we’re moving forward with COVID, the thing        equivalent to steering a ship: ‘The ship needs to be
  that I’ve put into leadership is just making sure, and    firm. [The] steering wheel, you've got to hold it in
  doing much more checking in on staff, on how staff        your hands.’ By not losing sight of the big picture,
  are actually going in their personal life. Because that   these leaders demonstrated resilience despite
  has a strong effect on their professional life."          changing circumstances.

  "Listening to people, listening to hear where they        Another leadership style we uncovered related to
  were unhappy, unsettled, concerned…my priority is         distributive leadership. We witnessed a shift in
  about making people feel supported."                      authority where principals increasingly opted to
                                                            share responsibilities with others by empowering and
We also found that many principals adopted a                involving their staff in higher level problem-solving
reflective leadership approach, where they took the         and decision-making.
time to reflect and critique their own leadership style
to improve how they lead their school. Other principals     As mentioned on p.18, the narrative inquiry framework
were more motivated by their perceived values and           allowed us to examine principals’ experience through
purposes and practised valued-based leadership.             the continuity in time.

  "I don’t think that my role ever finished. It didn’t
  finish till after ten o’clock at night, when I finally
  went to sleep it would finish. And then when I
  woke up it started all over again and including on
  the weekend."

  "The role of a principal is to offer whatever it is
  that a community needs at a particular time.
  Sometimes it takes a hammer, sometimes it takes
  a rose. While the pandemic has changed some of
  the things I have done, the actions, but not actually
  what I see as my role."

                                                                                     Agile leadership in times of crisis | 26
Lockdown one:
  the spread of COVID-19

Planning, decision-making and                             Moreover, around 31 per cent of principals expressed
                                                          frustration in dealing with conflicting information
navigating through uncertainty                            from the State and Federal Governments. Principals
                                                          also noted a lack of clarity from various government
Principals in general found it extremely difficult to     and statutory organisations. On the other hand, many
run their school, likening it to navigating in the dark   principals saw Independent Schools Victoria (ISV) as an
at times. This was especially the case during the first   invaluable resource. For example, some were grateful
lockdown, where they had little information about         to receive guidance from ISV’s daily email updates;
decisions and guidelines from government. As a result,    others praised individuals from ISV who provided timely
principals needed to make decisions quickly without       advice, mentorship and help with funding applications.
fully knowing the consequences. This was something
that initially sat uncomfortably with many principals.    While most principals mentioned that their School
                                                          Board and communities were supportive and
For instance, this was seen in the case of school         understanding, having to maintain regular contact
closures during mandatory lockdowns. To anticipate        with multiple iterations of communication back
the needs of their students and communities,              and forth was incredibly wearying, especially when
principals promptly decided to shift to online learning   stakeholders demanded that principals provide answers
prior to the official announcement of state-wide          straightaway.
school closures due to rising concerns from their
community. Others reported that they were ‘literally        "It also demonstrates to me that we have a Board that
making decisions hour by hour’ as new information           works closely with myself and the executive team
kept unfolding. Given that the state of Victoria went       when they need to, and that our values are aligned.
into lockdowns within short notice, that had no             And I think that’s really come through this year."
foreseeable end date, it was incredibly challenging for
principals to plan their school operations.               While no one anticipated the severity of the COVID-19
                                                          crisis, more than one-third of principals (36 per cent)
  "I had to take a lot of shots in the dark, and make     said they were aware that some basic contingency
  mistakes, and see whether it worked for our             planning and forecasting may help to offset a potential
  school community."                                      crisis. Therefore, some principals indicated that they
                                                          will be incorporating lessons from the pandemic into
                                                          developing strategic plans in their short to mid-term
                                                          future. For example, some principals recognised that
                                                          they need to consider how to better prepare for future
                                                          lockdowns to help their schools navigate challenges
                                                          like wellbeing support, improving their school’s ICT
                                                          infrastructure, developing a consistent approach to
                                                          messaging, as well as looking at ways to reskill, upskill
                                                          or hire quality teachers in the COVID-normal future.

                                                                                    Agile leadership in times of crisis | 27
During our interviews, some principals commented on        Some principals reported that their schools conducted
how their past professional experience in dealing with     multiple surveys among their stakeholders to ensure all
crises and other knowledge from previous workplaces        voices were heard. For example, one principal revealed
may have helped them to manage the pandemic. Many          that his school tailored their current wellbeing program
principals felt that lessons from the first lockdown       based on data findings on students’ mental health.
enabled them to become more confident in dealing with      In these cases, developing data literacy capabilities
the situation the second time around.                      across staff becomes important. To ensure validity and
                                                           reliability of data, a fully integrated and accessible data
 "I think the second lockdown for us was easier,           system would further enable staff across levels to make
 because we already had a template. We already had         strategic decisions to create and refine teaching and
 the communication strategy…We worked out that             learning that reflect students’ needs in real-time.
 we were overloading the kids in the first lockdown
 compared to the second time around. People had to         As we can see, principals had to navigate through a
 really decide what was important for the kids to take     great deal of uncertainty during lockdown one. They
 away. So, the structure of the day changed."              also had to juggle day-to-day operational challenges to
                                                           keep their school running.
Approximately 48 per cent of principals mentioned that
they increasingly used evidence-based research and
data to enable a more holistic understanding to inform
decisions during the initial stages of the pandemic
when planning was difficult. Types of data collected
for this purpose included self-reflection evaluations,
documenting new processes, observational data in the
classroom, student engagement data, attendance data,
as well as surveys to grasp how schools could better
support their communities.

 "I think the other experience and opportunity has
 been for us as educators to see the role of flexibility
 in learning. So, student feedback was very much
 about their ownership and their choice and voice in
 learning, and how they chose to work."

                                                                                     Agile leadership in times of crisis | 28
Lockdown two:
  Confronting emerging tensions

Dealing with financial pressure                           Schools with international students were still facing
                                                          border closures and uncertainty as to whether their
and ensuring school sustainability                        students would be able to return to Australia in early
                                                          2021. One school lost 30 international students and
Principals said they faced immense financial pressure     had to ask staff to take voluntary redundancies to
during the pandemic. Economic factors, such as            resolve their financial state. Some principals also had
parents’ loss of income and loss of enrolments            to face overwhelming pressure from parents who
(particularly international students), placed financial   were frustrated by the system.
stress on some schools. For almost all schools,
COVID-19 created increased operating costs through        While some principals will immediately assess
new IT expenditure, staff development, and other          their school’s finances to ensure they can allocate
short-term or ongoing related expenses such as            resources for students and their families who are
personal protective equipment, cleaning services and      financially impacted by the pandemic, they also
safety equipment. These fiscal burdens were especially    understand that this will be an ongoing process for the
tough for schools already facing financial pressure       next few years.
before the pandemic.
                                                            " We're not sure how the economy is going to go, and
As fees are the predominate source of income                we're an Independent, fee-paying school. So, that
for most Independent schools, some principals               puts strain on families and also whether we're even
offered fee discounts to families during early days         an option [for some parents] anymore."
of the pandemic to alleviate pressure on the school
community. Although offering fee relief to families       Principals acknowledged that there might be lasting
(who were themselves uncertain of the ongoing             impacts from the pandemic, recognising that they will
impact of the crisis) assisted in keeping students        not feel the full financial fallout of the crisis immediately.
at the school, this placed even more pressure on          Sixty-four per cent of principals outlined concerns
principals. For instance, many principals worried         around the sustainability of their school. For instance,
about constraints on their ability to keep their          some principals had to engage in ongoing discussions
workforce at full capacity. Such juggling acts            with staff to assure them of their job security.
between operational realities and keeping the school
community together were common and placed great           Despite the uncertainty around finances, many
stress on many principals, especially at the height of    principals had a positive outlook on future enrolments.
the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.                 In fact, the most recent Census data revealed that
                                                          Independent school enrolments as a whole have
Some schools continue to experience or anticipate         increased marginally from the previous year despite
long-term financial impact due to the destabilisation     the pandemic. One principal highlighted the need
of student enrolments attributed in some cases to         to balance cost efficiency and education quality.
the pandemic.                                             To maintain financial sustainability, principals may
                                                          need to find new alternatives to reduce costs without
  "There was probably a concern on how, with such a       compromising quality.
  small school, that any impact on enrolments could
  be devastating for us really."

                                                                                     Agile leadership in times of crisis | 29
In response, some principals started to look for            "We may be competitor schools, but that doesn’t
new markets to overcome the loss of international           matter right now; we’re here to just get through this.
students. In these schools, a new marketing approach        There was a huge amount of sharing in the earlier
to raise the school’s reputation and target new             days…that was great, just seeing various networks all
audiences was deemed necessary. As seen from                come together and share and support one another."
schools that reported an increase in enrolments
during the pandemic, principals suggest positive            "One of the biggest things for me was great
reputation among communities and the perception             collaboration between leaders. So, a number of
of value for money based on school fees may have            principals, we got together quite regularly, not
contributed to their growth.                                physically, but by phone or through Skype, and
                                                            communicated what we were doing and why we
 "The word is spreading. It’s taken three or four years,    were doing it. And it gave us a chance to reflect, not
 but the word is spreading that what we offer is a          necessarily change anything that we already made
 very viable alternative for those students who don’t       decisions, but it definitely said, “Oh, okay, I've not
 fit mainstream."                                           thought about that."

While schools are affected in different ways,              Some principals also recognised the benefits of
principals interviewed suggested that they are not         having participated in programs facilitated by ISV
struggling alone. Some principals mentioned how they       like Leading Learning that Matters (LLtM), which
valued opportunities to collaborate with other schools     continued to provide connections with other schools
to form professional networks and support each other       and allowed them to work together and share
during the pandemic.                                       resources. In general, principals appreciated support
                                                           from their networks during the pandemic.

                                                                                   Agile leadership in times of crisis | 30
"Our staff have been there 100% of the time.
Managing people, relationships                               And, yes, they've been stressed. And yes, they're
and communication                                            exhausted, but they're there for each other. And the
                                                             feeling of the team is just huge."
Principals from our interviews revealed that one
effective way to build trust and maintain connection        Staff collaborated more frequently through formal
among school communities during remote learning             and self-organised groups during the lockdowns.
was through regular and transparent communication.          For example, one school started a ‘buddy system’ on
                                                            Facebook where staff members regularly ‘check-in’
  "The pandemic has accelerated my practical                with one another to ensure everyone is coping okay.
  leadership of the community, and the necessity to         Other schools created learning community groups
  have clarity of communication to all of our families.     from different campuses or year levels to encourage
  We put all messages there so what they would see,         teachers to come together to share their learning,
  they would see the executive principal speaking and       brainstorm and create pilot projects or experiment
  giving some clear messaging about how the school          with new teaching. Principals also found that teachers
  was responding, with honesty, and saying there are        were taking more ownership of teaching as they
  still some uncertainties, but we will communicate to      assumed responsibility to work out effective ways to
  you as they come out."                                    teach remotely, individually and as a team.

Almost half of the principals interviewed (43 per            "I’ve seen more professional learning, more
cent) reported that they felt supported, helpful and         adaptive learning, more creative thinking … than
understanding after engaging with stakeholders.              I’ve ever seen."
Principals were able to maintain connection with
their school communities via virtual meetings,               "One of our staff, who’s been here a number of
emails and phone calls. This suggests there was an           years, has really stepped up in terms of leading
increased level of confidence in using technology to         her colleagues in some of the innovations around
communicate, especially during the second lockdown.          teaching online."

While a handful of principals noted that some staff
struggled to change and were not as flexible due to
the ‘very static culture’ of the school, most agreed that
their staff became more adaptable and comfortable
in responding to change. In general, there was a high
level of commitment, as well as trust, collaboration
and collegiality among staff at most schools and a
commitment to working together to continue the task
of providing a quality education to students. Almost
half (48 per cent) of the principals interviewed had
a positive reflection of their school’s teamwork and
collaboration throughout the pandemic.

                                                                                    Agile leadership in times of crisis | 31
Some principals spoke of the need to implement                Most principals were pleased by their staff’s desire
structural changes at their school, such as redesigning       and confidence to grow professionally and adapt to
leadership and management roles, to better support            changes. In this sense, staff ‘buy-in’ emerges as an
staff with the shift toward digital education. Other          important enabler to transform a school’s culture.
schools restructured their workforce to place staff into      Therefore, maintaining job satisfaction and providing
temporary positions to counter pressing needs to cope         ample opportunities for professional growth for
with the shift into new areas of organisation driven          existing staff are equally important as recruiting new
by the pandemic, such as remote teaching. Overall,            and quality team members to create an effective and
principals who had to re-model their workforce indicated      sustainable workforce.
that getting the ‘right people’ is vital to address current
and potential gaps in their schools, not only during the      The lockdowns also illustrated that it was feasible for
COIVD-19 pandemic but in response to the increasing           schools to adopt more flexible work arrangements
anticipation of a hybrid learning future. But finding         with staff. Some principals said that it might be a
quality teachers can be difficult. Employing new staff        good opportunity to explore a combination of on-site
members was often challenging for schools to carry out        and offsite working schedules. For instance, remote
the recruitment process online.                               meetings could save travel time and resources and
                                                              replace some face-to-face events. Similarly, principals
Despite the challenges around moving to online                recognised that parent-teacher interviews could also be
learning and communicating change across the school           held online in the future. While they might not replace
community, some principals did manage to capitalise           face-to-face interactions, this may be an option for
on opportunities created by COVID-19. The shift toward        those who need the flexibility of online meetings (such as
virtual professional learning presented opportunities for     parents with long commutes).
the whole staff at a school to obtain new skills that are
aligned with the school’s values and goals at a reduced       Most principals noted that long standing
cost. Principals recognised that online attendance for        communication strategies in place at their school
professional development and events like webinars and         drastically changed at the organisational level during
conferences are likely to increase. In fact, principals       the pandemic. Communication became more frequent
found that teachers participated in more professional         and constant as principals needed to move fast to
development courses during the pandemic than they             keep everyone in the loop. Principals highlighted the
did pre-pandemic. This momentum of reskilling and             fact that transparency is crucial to leading a school
upskilling among teachers is likely a result of surging       through a crisis, both for staff, students and their
global online courses, with school culture becoming           families. Making sure that staff are on the same page
more participatory and principals’ ongoing commitment         allowed school leaders to better manage expectations
to provide quality education.                                 and workflow across all teams. Connections with
                                                              parents, already vital, had to increase during
                                                              the pandemic and many principals altered their
                                                              communication to allow for more timely and tailored

                                                                                        Agile leadership in times of crisis | 32
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